Living with Loss


Part One

A snowstorm swept across the window of my mother’s room in the Good Samaritan, a nice room and well tended. Mother had chosen the bed closest to the window so she could watch the storms and the wind and the trains that passed at the bottom of the gentle slope beyond the fence where a plowed field lay. Her father was a depot agent so watching trains made her happy. She’d returned from a two-week stay in the hospital and was curled into her blankets. I lay beside her and curled around her back. We watched the wind batter snow in gusts. I’d planted a miniature lilac bush outside her window earlier in the spring, but it was hidden in the icy squalls.

The Good Samaritan Nursing Home is in small-town Wymore, Nebraska and where my elders go to die. That’s blunt, but it’s the truth. I’d seen it transition from an old time two-story brick structure to a modern one-story residence with gardens. The old structure sagged in decay across the street. Two of my grandfathers died in the old building and my Grandmother Sunderland. Dad died in a hospital bed. Grandpa Sunderland, too. They’d never lived there. I grew up on a Kansas State Line farm some seventeen miles south. Wymore is where we shopped, went to church, and where Mom and Dad retired when they left the farm.  Mom volunteered at the new place after they moved. Several of her friends lived there or worked there. Then Dad died and Mom when to live with my sister north of Seattle. “I never hear the wind up here,” she’d complained more than once.

I live in Kansas City, Missouri some three hours of driving from Wymore. A year before she died, she came to visit and I drove us up to the Wymore church where all the people she knew went. Mom had macular degeneration so when we got out of the car in the church parking lot and walked across the gravel to the front doors, she took my arm and said, “If someone comes up and I can’t see who it is, tell me their name.”

“What if I don’t remember their name,” I said. “I haven’t been here in years!” She drew herself up to her full four-foot eleven and a half-inch height and looked at me as if I were six years old instead of reaching for elder-hood myself. “Just ask them to remind you of their name!”

Everyone was happy to see her and kids who’d grown up in the church stopped to measure their growing height against her tiny frame. Adults bent down to hug her.

That afternoon, driving back to Kansas City, Mom watched the rolling fields of blood-red milo, nearing harvest time. I heard her sigh. She turned from the window and said, “It’s time for me to move to the Good Sam.” And just that quickly, a two-week visit turned into forever.

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Part Two

I watched the snow in an endless cascade across the window as if it had been snowing forever. Mom fell asleep, puffing her little breath puffs from between her lips that told me she was calm. The hospital stay had taken a lot out of her. Out of all of us. I carefully removed my arm from around her and rolled onto my back.

Three weeks ago, when the nursing home staff nurse had called to tell me of another seizure, this one stronger than the usual small ones, this one leaving her unconscious, this one sending her in an ambulance to the emergency room at the Beatrice hospital, my whole body clenched. I’d tossed a few things in a bag, called my son down the street, and started driving. It would take me four hours to reach Beatrice. I saw nothing as I drove except the black asphalt of road: not the wide rolling fields or the wide sky, not the line of windmills I liked seeing, planted in a straight line leading to a small museum at the curve outside Hiawatha. I didn’t notice if it was cloudy or clear. I didn’t stop for the usual break in Seneca. I drove.

By the time I got to the emergency room, she’d moved to Intensive Care. I found her, elevated in a bed in a single room, unconscious, tubes in her nose to help her breathe, tubes in her arms, heart monitor glued to her chest. The room still except for blinking lights and beeping. A doctor, white coat, gentle hands, came in and guided me out of the room. I leaned against the wall. “How is she?” I asked.

“She’s had a bad seizure,” he said. “And she hasn’t regained consciousness. It’s probably time to call the family.” My knees gave way. I slid to the floor, hunched over my bent legs, head resting on my knees. I couldn’t stop the tears. My knees were wet.

The doctor brought a glass of water and waited as I regained some kind of something. Composure it wasn’t but I could stand up. I began calling. My brother first. He was the closest. He’d be here in a couple of hours, maybe three, he said. I called my sisters, two in Oregon, one north of Seattle, one in Hawaii. One by one, they arrived. Jack or I drove to the airport to meet them. Mother had drifted in and out of semi-consciousness from time to time but she still lived. Finally, we were all together again, gathered around her bed. Jeanne, the farthest away, was the last to arrive. She brought sacred ti leaves with her.

I wasn’t conscious of the staff reaction to this growing gathering. They came and went, checked machines, adjusted the flow or one tube or another, left us alone. Jeanne placed the ti leaves around Mother, circling her in a giant lei like a tiny jewel set in white sheets. We held hands. We sang. Our voices rose and fell, quiet harmony in a quiet room. We told her we understood. We said it was okay to go.

And then we held vigil. Waiting. No idea how much time passed. Mom’s hand twitched on the covers, opening and closing her fingers. Someone went to get carry-out and brought it back. Maybe she smelled the food, who knows, but we heard her clear her throat and her eyes opened.

We laughed about that later. How with all her kids home, she had to do something and that something was usually food. Little by little, she came back to us. In a couple of days, they moved her into a room with an extra bed so one of us could always be there. Usually, we were two or three. Jack had to go back to work, and Jeanne to Hawaii. Jolene stayed for a few days then went back to work. That left Julia and Judy and me. Mom got progressively stronger, still weak, but she could finally get rid of the bed pan. One morning, as she sat hunched on the portable pot they’d brought to her bedside, she looked up. “Am I having another baby?” We laughed. No, Ma. You’re not. “Well, good,” she said. And soon, Judy and Julia left.

Now she was back in her bed at The Good Sam. I felt her stir beside me. I heard her smack her lips, a sometimes sign of a Petit Mal seizure, but no, her mouth was dry. I got up and brought water.

I went around her bed to the window side and sat on the edge, facing her, to help her drink from the straw. She drank and pushed the straw out of her mouth. She sighed a sigh all the way to her toes, which wasn’t that far. But I saw her brow furrow as she recognized the room. “I’m still here?” Yeah. You’re still here.

I set the glass on the window sill and leaned over her, brushed my hand across her lovely white hair. What prompted my question, I don’t know, but unplanned, I asked, “Mom, are you ready to go?’

She smiled a half-smile. “Oh, my yes. They’ll be people to laugh at my jokes on the other side.” One of her frustrations at the nursing home was that so few of the other residents understood her wry humor. I stroked her head. I’d started crying again and my nose was running. Lifting my arm from her head, I swiped my sweatshirt arm below my nose.

She glanced up. “How old are you? Forty?” No. I’m almost sixty I reminded her. “And I never taught you not to wipe your nose on your sleeve?” I laughed. “Yeah, Ma. You did.” At least her kids understood her humor.

I had to go home. I’d been sleeping the last couple of nights at the little roadside strip motel, old enough that I remembered it from my childhood going to church years, and I needed clothes. My cousin had brought a couple of changes to the hospital for me, but even they were dirty. I told her I’d be back soon. She nodded. “I’ll be okay here,” she said.

I got behind the wheel of Dad’s old blue Pontiac. I’d had it for years since my brother gave it to me when I moved to Santa Fe. I’d renamed it Old Blue. After five years in New Mexico, it had moved me back to Kansas. Mom loved riding in it when she’d come to visit. She’d pat the dash. It was the car that moved her to The Good Sam. The car we took when we went shopping. She’d paid for a new paint job and it looked the same beautiful sky blue as it had always been. I drove, back onto Highway 36, back toward St. Joe and home. I was still crying.

As I started up the long rise to the blinking light at the Beattie corner, an old truck stopped at the sign on the right. The truck reminded me of my uncle’s Chevrolet Apache. I grinned. I sworn that if I ever bought a pickup, it would be an Apache.Twenty-five yards ahead, the truck pulled onto the highway. An old man’s head framed by the truck’s side window, a dog beyond him. The man was looking in the opposite direction. Not at me in a car hurtling toward him.

I slammed on the brakes, jerked the wheel hard left, some part of my car shuddered against his front fender. When the car stopped, I was in the far left ditch and the truck had spun corner to corner. Shattered glass lay across my lap. The passenger side window gone. Traffic at a standstill. In the distance, I heard a siren. I wondered if I’d blacked out for a bit, but I could stand after I pushed open the car door. I braced myself on the trunk and walked around the back, worried about the old man and the dog. I saw someone helping him out of the truck. Somehow, we’d all survived. Except for Old Blue, deeply scored on the passenger side. I was losing Mom and now I’d lost Dad’s car.

Police arrived; a tow truck; I still had my phone and called an aunt in Marysville. The police took me there. I seemed to be functioning if rattled. I sat on my aunt’s sofa and called the insurance company. My uncle took me to a local used car lot, Route 36. “I know the perfect car,” the dealer said. “A Chevy. We just got it in. Owned by an old lady. Not many miles.” It was dark blue. I signed papers. I had a New Blue. I drove to where the tow truck parked Dad’s car and cleaned out the glove box and the trunk and the papers scattered in the back seat. I patted the dash and said good-bye. By evening, I was headed home again. But I cried as I passed the Beattie corner.

What was I going to tell Mom?